The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The urban-rural divide is defining politics worldwide. Canada’s election is proof.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a speech in Montreal on Oct. 22. (Paul Chiasson/AP)

Politics in the United States is increasingly defined by an urban-rural divide, with urban areas turning to the left and rural areas going to the right. Monday’s Canadian election shows that this trend isn’t limited to the United States.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won a second term in power on Monday even as the opposition Conservative Party won a plurality of the popular vote. That’s partly because of how Canada apportions its seats in the House of Commons. Unlike in the United States, seats do not need to be roughly equal in population. Provinces are guaranteed that the number of seats they hold in Parliament will either be no fewer than they had in 1986 or no fewer than the number of senators in each province. This primarily benefits the four provinces in Atlantic Canada, and the Liberals won 26 of that region’s 32 seats.

The urban-rural split, however, was the bigger reason for Trudeau’s reelection. The Liberals lost many seats to the Conservatives in rural areas and historically right-wing Alberta. But the Tories ran into a Liberal wall when they tried to win suburban ridings in Toronto, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Vancouver.

Suburban Toronto was the biggest failure. This region held nine of the Tories’ 24 narrowest defeats in the 2015 election. They needed to win almost all of these to have any chance of forming government. They gained only one, and that was held by a woman who left the Liberals for the Tories after 2015. The Conservative suburban candidates did so poorly that they each received a smaller share of the vote this year than the Tory candidate did in 2015, even though the party gained 2.5 percent of the nationwide share.

Other suburbs followed suit. Conservatives picked up four suburban Vancouver seats but fell short in four others; they needed to win at least seven to have a chance of forming government. They failed to pick up two of the three suburban Winnipeg ridings they needed and also failed to win a single seat in suburban Ottawa. They even lost one contest in suburban Quebec and two races in small cities in New Brunswick, which they had to carry.

The news was different outside of metropolitan areas. Conservatives won nearly all their top 24 targets in Alberta or rural regions. They picked up three seats in the rural province of Saskatchewan and gained rural-based seats elsewhere in Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. But when it came to places near Canada’s major cities outside of Alberta, voters preferred Trudeau’s Liberals.

Recent elections in other countries show similar trends. Poland’s conservative populist ruling party won that nation’s recent elections, but they lost or ran well behind their national totals in all nine of the largest cities. Hungary’s conservative populists, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, lost control of the largest city and capital, Budapest, and 10 other major cities in this month’s local elections. It kept control, however, of every rural-based regional assembly. Even normally staid Switzerland got in the act during its elections on Sunday: Two green parties were the big winners, performing particularly well in the large cities of Zurich and Geneva.

These trends should give even victorious urban-based parties pause. As economic growth and wealth flow more toward cities and their suburbs, rural voters are increasingly feeling left behind and ignored. Urban voters also tend to embrace social changes that rural areas resist. These trends are fueling the vocal populism that is upending global politics. Simply winning elections on the basis of urban voting power won’t stop the rural regions’ revolts.

National cohesion always requires compromise. That’s how we ended up with the mixed economy that dominated the 20th century developed world, as working-class parties that won national elections settled for a welfare state rather than instituting purely socialist economies that would have divided their nations. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela brokered a similar compromise, choosing not to pursue economic or political retribution against whites who had created apartheid in exchange for their surrender of political power to the black majority.

This requirement for compromise works both ways. Conservative populists who want to win need to accommodate the beliefs of urban and suburban residents as well as their rural bases. That entails some degree of moderation on social issues and a commitment to rapid economic growth. Canada’s Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, lost in part because he failed to persuade nervous suburbanites that Canada’s social liberalism would not be threatened by a party with its roots in conservative and religious regions. The next Tory leader will need to find a way to do that while not losing the faith of his or her base.

Trudeau told the country that Canadians had voted for a “progressive agenda” in his victory speech. He’s right; moderate progressivism is clearly what global urbanites want. Whether they can respect the need for social stability while they pursue that agenda, however, will largely determine whether conservative populism fades or grows.

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